Backup heaters

When your central heating is not enough or the power goes off, that’s when you’re glad you bought a backup heater. But use them safely. Here’s a small guide to choosing and using.

In 2004, the Montreal fire-prevention service urged residents to be very careful when using backup heaters. And with good reason: most fires that occur when the thermometer dips to arctic depths are caused by overuse, improper use or incorrect installation of backup heaters.

When buying a backup heater, think safety first. Most important is choosing an appliance bearing the seal of the Underwriters’ Laboratories of Canada (ULC) and the Canadian Standards Association (CSA). Gas stoves and fireplaces must also come with a CGA plaque issued by the Canadian Gas Association. And in terms of wood stoves, more and more consumers are also looking for models that are certified by the US Environmental Protection Agency. According to Protégez-vous (Protect Yourself) magazine, these stoves pollute less, emitting only 3 to 5 g of particles per hour, compared to 30 to 50 g for controlled combustion appliances! Once purchased, you must make sure to follow the manufacturer’s recommendations to the letter as you install it. Even better, hire a specialist. After that, use it wisely.

Fireplaces and stoves burning wood
As opposed to wood stoves and controlled-combustion stoves, fireplaces are not true backup heating systems. They’re really meant to add cheer to a room rather than heat. In case of a power failure, they can provide some heat for a few hours at the most. Controlled-combustion stoves are more efficient than fireplaces in terms of energy, but they do pollute more.

Advantages – The cozy feeling they give a room. Who doesn’t enjoy watching the flames and smelling the wood smoke?

Disadvantages – Stacking the wood, for one thing. It also takes a certain skill to light a wood fire – and without smoking up the house! The firebox and chimney need regular maintenance. Fireplaces draw a lot of hot air out of the house when not in use, but a good flue as well as insulating, tightfitting glass doors help keep heat from escaping.

Safety precautions – Improper usage, such as keeping a fire in a decorative fireplace burning for too long, overheating and burning wet wood, increases the risk of a chimney fire. So does not sweeping on a regular basis, which lets creosote build up. Sweep the chimney every year or when the creosote build-up on the firebox walls reaches 3 mm. Deposit the ashes in a metal container with a raised bottom and store them outdoors, far from combustible materials (embers can stay hot for more than three days). Use only hardwood (such as maple and birch) that has been dry for at least six months (in addition to reducing the fire risk, it produces more heat for a longer time). Be careful not to burn too much wood in the fireplace or the wood stove at a time. Another problem is that burning wood causes contaminants to pollute the outdoors.

Furthermore, depending on the type of device used, the quality of installation and the way it is used, wood smoke and polluting particulates may enter the house to contaminate the air you breathe. Young children, seniors and people suffering from asthma, emphysema or heart problems are most sensitive. To limit exposure to contaminants, make sure you follow the manufacturer’s recommendations and burn only wood – never burn household refuse such as plastic, paper, table scraps or treated or painted wood. A substandard installation – for example, a too-long stove pipe inside the house with a few 90° elbows – could hamper the draw and cause the wood to burn poorly. The result is the production of toxic carbon monoxide fumes, a deadly gas that is odourless and colourless. Installing carbon monoxide detectors could well save lives.

Fireplaces and stoves burning propane and natural gas
These have become very popular, especially because they don’t require a chimney: all they need is an exhaust pipe or a vent. They can be installed just about anywhere in the house. Heating power is measured in BTUs (British Thermal Units). The more BTUs, the greater the heat.

Advantages – Compared with most wood-burning devices, they instantly deliver heat to the room. There are no ashes. Neither are there logs to carry nor cleaning to do. You switch these devices on and off easily using a remote control or a thermostat. They serve as excellent backup heaters in case the power goes off.

Disadvantages – Installation and repairs must be made by an expert only. If you go for propane gas, you must rent a tank and have it installed outside your house.

Safety precautions – According to the Canada Safety Council, the glass doors can cause serious burns. Not surprising, considering some models reach over 200° C within minutes of being lit. Unusual odours or flames are signs of malfunction. If that happens, shut off the gas supply and call an expert without delay. And because they can produce toxic carbon monoxide fumes, installing a carbon monoxide detector is strongly recommended.

Stoves burning wood pellets
As the name implies, these stoves use wood pellets rather than firewood. The pellets’ size and shape are designed to burn at maximum efficiency. The humidity level is also controlled.

Advantages – Fuel is fed automatically. Some models can work by themselves for up to 20 hours. And because the pellets burn completely, a traditional chimney is not required – a simple evacuation pipe will do the job. The pellets are sold in bags and are easy to handle.

Disadvantages – Pellets can only be used in stoves specifically designed to burn this kind of fuel. Some models are noisy. All need regular maintenance.

Safety precautions – They can produce toxic carbon monoxide gas, so a carbon monoxide detector is recommended.

Electric portable heaters
These are the safest type of heaters to have in the home.

Advantages – All you have to do is plug them into a household electric outlet to make them work. You can use them in any room in the house.

Disadvantages – Obviously, they won’t help during a power failure. They serve as a supplement to the central heating system only.

Safety precautions – Before you buy one, make sure that it is approved by the ULC or CSA, and that it is approved for the type of usage you intend (indoor, indoor and outdoor, outdoor only). You must keep them at least one metre clear of combustibles, such as walls, furniture, paper, curtains and heating devices. Never use one in conjunction with an extension cord.
Note: Portable propane heaters are forbidden in homes, as they produce carbon dioxide.

We wish to thank Ghyslain Bélanger, director general of the Association des Professionnels du Chauffage (APC), and Alexandre Royer, public-affairs advisor for the Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC) for their most helpful cooperation.

By Jacqueline Simoneau,
Translated by John Woolfrey